Alexander Payne is one of America’s best contemporary filmmakers because his films present the flaws and inconsistencies of the human soul. His movies center around characters who seem like archetypes at first glance, but there is always something deeper underneath, such as Matthew Broderick’s pleasant on the outside and vindictive on the inside schoolteacher in “Election” and Paul Giamatti’s pretentious and self-loathing novelist in “Sideways.”
In “The Descendants,” Matt King (George Clooney) is another example. He is a real estate lawyer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu who is being weighed down by two major events; the potential sale of some exclusive land entrusted to him and his legion of cousins (whose ancestors were Hawaiian royalty), and more importantly, the recent boating accident that left his wife Elizabeth in a coma with no chance of ever waking up.
Complicating matters is the fact that for the first time in his life Matt has to become a fully-engaged parent to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who are both having volatile reactions to their mother’s impending death, which are made worse when Alexandra drops a bombshell on Matt: Elizabeth was having an affair.
This sounds like a traffic jam of Lifetime movie cliches: cancer, damaged teenagers and infidelity all at once. But “The Descendants” is far from being a hollow sap-fest. It is a funny, tragic, perfectly acted and beautifully realized movie, that shows another facet of Payne’s ability to capture human frailty in all its forms.
The movie, adapted by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, deals with what happens to someone who coasted through being apart of his family who must take charge of said family with no warning. Matt is having difficulty concentrating on this land deal and the pressure from his cousins to spearhead the sale (specifically his cousin Hugh, played with oily sleaze by Beau Bridges) when he has to process the emotional turmoil that surrounds him. He is cautiously optimistic that his wife will be okay, but his daughter Scottie, played with deadpan eccentricity by Miller, is lashing out at her classmates and taking pictures of her comatose mother for show and tell. Alexandra is an even worse state. Exiled to boarding school for her problems with drugs and older men, is filled with anger from finding out about her mother’s affair that spills over after her the accident.
Matt is obviously distraught from hearing about his wife’s betrayal and from her doctor telling him that Elizabeth will never wake up. He scrambles to break the news to their friends and family, but this is uncharted territory for him. We can see him shrink within his oversized Hawaiian shirts. In a last-ditch effort to set things right with his wife, his daughters and himself, he finds out from a friend where to find Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the real estate agent Elizabeth was sleeping with, and takes his daughters and Alexandra’s dim-bulb boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) on a road trip to confront Brian and give him the chance to say goodbye to Elizabeth.
One of the things that really stood out about this movie was Payne’s attitude toward his characters. His early films had a very observant, sharply satirical edge to them, especially “Election,” which meant he had no mercy when it came to more unsavory characters. As he moved into more traditional character study-territory, his harshness wasn’t diluted, which became a problem; I can’t stand “About Schmidt” because Payne expected us to care about characters he didn’t even like; the wickedness didn’t fit his world anymore. But with “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” he learned to be more fair with his characters. In this movie for example, every character, even the less savory ones, have layers that help us understand them more as people. Brian did make a mistake with this affair, since he has a wife (Judy Greer) and kids of his own, he just doesn’t know what he wants; his infidelity isn’t spelled out in a trite, predictable explanation. The repercussions are what propel the stories of these characters.
Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) is an angry and bitter old man who blames Matt for her accident, but we learn that he’s just lost and confused, unable to deal with the impending grief. Alexandra at first glance is selfish, petulant, and is unfairly holding a grudge against her mother. But the character is deeper than first glance, she is just looking for something stable and trustworthy in her life. Major credit is due to Woodley herself, who gives an acerbic, funny and ultimately moving performance that cuts through any and all cliches.
At the top of this mountain is Matt himself. He’s a storm of emotions, confusion and trying to bring some order to his “archipelago” of a family. Clooney may not sound like the first choice to play someone who isn’t assertive or charismatic, and is rather fairly straight-laced and downright square. But there is the brilliance in his performance. Clooney looks and acts downright disheveled, whether he’s scrambling to find his wife’s lover or railing against her in the hospital. But Clooney strips away his trademark swagger and movie-star veneer to dig into Matt’s very soul. It is some of his very best work. The rest of the cast is strong as well. Krause is very funny as Sid, but he’s dealt with tragedy in his life as well. Lillard has surprising depth for just a couple minutes of screentime, and Greer as his wife is simply astonishing. Not since Beatrice Strait in “Network” has years of heartbreak been put on display in under five minutes of acting, especially when she visits Elizabeth in the hospital and unleashes all of her stored up anger but ultimately forgives the woman she hates.
“The Descendants” is far from depressing, however. There is sadness, but there is a spirit of good humor and the eternal bonds of family that shines through the entire production. Think of the Seven Stages of Grief by way of Billy Wilder. Filmed on location in Hawaii, the movie is gorgeously shot but there is still an everyday grit to this paradise, which keeps it grounded in reality and not synthetic. That’s because a piece of this landscape is on the line with the land deal that Matt’s family is focused on. We have to comprehend the conflict Matt faces not just with his wife and daughters, but with the family land that might be turned into shopping malls, a mockery of his namesake.
Some may find Payne venturing in less hostile material as a regression, that he is softening with age. I just think he’s learning how to paint with every color in his palette. Great writers and directors find a way to approach their favorite themes with new perspectives, and Payne has accomplished that and more. Some may wonder why this movie is called “The Descendants.” It’s called that because it’s about the decisions we have to make about the things in our family we have to hold onto no matter what, to leave them for the future, as well as what we have no choice but to let go of.